The right man for the job

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The transmission’s innards lay on the workbench, the bell housing at our feet. Holding the shift rod oustretched, Alan Cesar grunted. This crucial piece of linkage should be a straight shaft and we could both see, for the first time, its obtuse angle with the vertex marking the rod’s exit point from the transmission casing. We’d somehow managed to fail at Step One of the transmission rebuild. Of course, we hadn’t discovered this until we’d buttoned it back up (probably incorrectly anyway) and found it wouldn’t budge to juggle the gears.

It had been an honest oversight in a 24 Hours of LeMons build chock full of them. Why yes, we could salvage the drivetrain from a 1998 Ford Escort ZX2 that had rear-ended an Astro van. It didn’t appear damaged at all, aside from a crushed dipstick tube and a broken thermostat housing, though the shift forks for the transmission were worn and needed replacing, too. We’d fix all of that, no problem, then drop the 130-horsepower motor into a 1991 Ford Escort LX in place of its exhausted CVH four-pot. Alan (now an associate editor at Grassroots Motorsports and an experienced engine rebuilder) assured me that, while he hadn’t done this before, it should only take a good weekend of work. We would toast to our prodigious and heretofore undiscovered engine-swapping talent by Sunday afternoon.

I brought the Beck’s and blind optimism. The end of the weekend brought harsh reality and a longer to-do list.

The following weekend, we’d finally managed to begin the transmission rebuild and late Saturday evening after nine hours of flailing with the transmission bits, we discovered the front-end damage had extended to the shift rod. We slept on it, then spent Sunday morning trying to find local machine shops who might be able to bend the shaft back straight. Alan left voicemails at all of the numbers listed until he received a return call that Yes, a machinist (Let’s call him Larry) can meet us at a nearby rural machine shop he rents on a Sunday morning and he can do the job for a reasonable price.

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We arrive at the arranged time, holding the shift rod and looking perplexed at the red corrugated shed adjacent to a small white cottage. We notice a distinct lack of Larry. After a few minutes of waiting, a scowling man of about 75 emerges from the house and asks why we’re there. We tell him we’re waiting for Larry and explain about the shift rod. We can tell he owns the property and has little interest in our plight. He shifts his glasses to the end of his nose and peers over their metal rims at it.

In no uncertain terms, he expresses his displeasure with his tenant, Larry, but says the floor press in the shop should work and he’ll see what he can do since there’s no sense in us waiting around all morning and lord only knows when Larry might actually show up. He pulls out a scant keyring and disappears through the shop door. The larger garage door opens, spilling in just enough mid-morning light to show the debris of a well-used shop fallen into disuse. He mutters about all of the forms for his press having gone missing, but he might have some scraps that will work in a bind. Neither of us really know what he means.

He wanders off toward the back of the shop, where a Model T frame hangs from the wall, and returns with a couple of enormous, identical pieces of rectangular steel tubing that look like they’ve been cut from a chisel plow frame. The floor press is a simple, manually operated H-frame thing and he perches the bent rod on the tubing in such a way that the press drops directly onto the shaft’s bend.

The old machinist furrows his brow at his first attempt with the press and makes a second go. He squints a bit, then holds it up to the light streaming in through the garage door. He hands it to Alan, who shows me the straightest piece of metal I’ve ever seen.

We make some brief attempts at small talk and when we tell him the shift rod is for a racecar, he motions to the hanging Model T, telling how he spent much of the 1950s making T-bucket hot rods and machining convoluted shifters for them. He’d done some drag racing in Model Ts, he said, but the modifying was mostly a way to impress women. His eyes glance toward the house.

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We can’t thank him enough for his help and ask him what we owe for his trouble. He dismisses it as nothing but doesn’t turn down $20. As he slides the bill into the breast pocket of his wrinkled denim shirt, a black Silverado’s tires crunch the driveway’s gravel. Larry piles out of the truck with a tool bag in hand. We show him that his payday is already gone, but he pulls some measuring tools out of the bag anyway. He declares that the the fixed rod shows .006″ of total indicated runout, which means the shaft was now just three-thousandths of an inch from perfectly straight.

The old machinist seems uninterested in the measurements, which are the same as telling him a Flathead V8 sounds good. It is something he knows; quantifying it misses the point entirely. With a scoff and a word or two, he turns toward the house where we see his wife hovering just inside the door. We silently watch him disappear nameless within, forgetting momentarily the shift rod in my hand. He never looks back.

[Photos: Alan Cesar/Grassroots Motorsports Magazine]

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11 responses to “The right man for the job”

  1. Nuclearspork Avatar

    It seems the best place to get parts fixed for LeMons racers need to be rundown and dilapidated, you also needing some kind of odd person ending with you having a crazy sounding story that everyone will think you just made up.

    1. mdharrell Avatar

      Not necessarily. I do all my own LeMons work myself at home and… Oh.

  2. GTXcellent Avatar

    Why does it seem the very best mechanics/machinists/welders/plumbers/etc/etc have never had any formal training? My go-to guy is almost 90, is missing a few fingers on each hand, and never went to school beyond about 6th grade, but the guy can fix ANYTHING. From million dollar combines down to decades old garden tillers, he is almost magic.

    1. JayP2112 Avatar

      Wanna know why?
      These guys got their hands dirty and probably broke more stuff than I'll ever fix. They aren't afraid to get it wrong, or may not know any different.
      "Hands-on" is a lost art. What does society tell us we need to do when we finish high school? College. Books, college and get a job behind a desk, banging plastic, composing emails. Closest thing to getting dirty is wiping their butt with some aloe-based tissue.
      We have become soft. Hell, I got a blister winding my g'damn watch!
      No everyone is cut out for college yet teachers try to run the kids thru those traps. Where will the next generation of welders, machinists, tool and die guys come from?
      Now that I'm all worked up, excuse me while I drink a case of beer, tear down a V8 of some sort, make a stew out of SlimJims and thumb thru the latest issue of "Beaver Hunt".

      1. GTXcellent Avatar

        There's more to it than that. I know plenty of folks who've had formal, technical training, and have now been plying their trades for decades – and have broke plenty of stuff. They are good and solid at what they do, but still don't have that extra level that a guy like Luverne does. I suppose a comparison can be made to top flight professional athletes – some people just possess that innate ability that few others do.

  3. longrooffan Avatar

    I'm afraid that with all new technology being computer driven, there won't be anyone around with the talents this guy possesses in a generation or two.

  4. Irishzombieman☆ Avatar

    Eric, that was excellent.

    1. Tiller188 Avatar

      Hear, hear! Great story, well told. And, yup, gotta love the grizzled old experts who just KNOW how to do this stuff.

  5. autoxmike Avatar

    Great piece…

  6. discontinuuity Avatar

    As someone who is currently going to school to be a machinist, I hope to be that grizzled old man someday.

  7. LTDScott Avatar

    We just took the easy way out and swapped in a wrong year transmission of unknown condition in 90 degree weather at 1 in the morning.
    Yeah, easy. Thankfully it worked and we finished in 5th!

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